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Rabbi Shais Taub

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Faith vs. Fantasy

Posted: 08/24/11 04:27 PM ET

Back in the old country, there was a rabbi who invested his life savings in timber. When a forest fire broke out and his finances literally went up in smoke, the rabbi's friends worried about how to break the devastating news to him. They hemmed and hawed until the rabbi said, "You're afraid to tell me about the fire, aren't you?"

"You know?" they asked surprised.

"I found out about an hour ago."

"And you're not upset?" they asked.

"I was," he answered, "I'm over it now."

"It was only an hour ago!"

"Tell me," said the rabbi, "Didn't you once suffer a loss by fire? Why aren't you distraught about it?"

"My fire was 10 years ago."

"OK, so for you it took 10 years. For me it took an hour. The point is we both got over it."

One of life's great truths is that pain + time = healing. It's not the passage of time itself that heals; it's the perspective that time brings. The longer we live, the more experiences we have and the bigger our world becomes. With perspective, every hurt shrinks to a more manageable size. So the real formula seems to be pain + perspective = healing. If we could get perspective without time, that would work, too. It's just that usually, we need to live longer before we can see things differently.

But, imagine, please, for a moment, what it would be like to have immediate perspective. What if we didn't have to wait for context to come? What if we already had enough room in our minds and our hearts to contextualize pain as it happened? What would life be like then?

I'll tell you how this question has practical implications. It may be true that time heals all wounds, but the healing almost always leaves a scar -- a place where the heart is a bit tougher to make up for past damage and protect itself from future hurt. If only we could more rapidly find space for our pain -- if we could get over in an hour that which normally takes 10 years -- then there would be no scarring. We could learn hard lessons without disillusionment; we could grow wiser without becoming cynical or jaded.

Is it possible to gain a perspective that allows us to contextualize the events of our lives in real time instead of having to wait until we can make a withdrawal from that emotional 401k called hindsight? Is there such thing as the ability to become a "quick healer" from the bangs and bruises of life?

It's a rhetorical question. The answer is "yes," but the best word I have to describe this skill is the same word that a lot of other people use to mean all sorts of crazy things. The word is "faith."

Faith is perspective. What is faith but the ability to sense that there is a reality that lies beyond the horizon of the intellect's farthest gaze? Incidentally, this is precisely why faith, by definition, can only properly begin once critical thinking has run smack up against its outermost limits. To wit, accepting on faith that which can be understood is as unconscionable as using reason to reject something that cannot be understood. The former is laziness, the latter is arrogance. Both are predicated on the misconception rampant among fundamentalist believers and atheists alike that faith and intellect can somehow be used to perform the same function and that the one you choose to favor shows what kind of person you are, as if this were an argument over whether it's better to use a 7-wood or a 3-iron for a chip shot. Alas, faith is no more interchangeable with intellect than breathing is a substitute for eating. We need both, but we cannot replace one with the other.

But I digress. All I wish to make clear is that faith is stacked on top of reason, not overlapping it. Let us return to the main discussion, which was how to handle the hardships of life with more grace and calm.

With faith, our universe instantly expands, we become smaller and so do our troubles.

If one would argue that for the same price you can just "expand" your reality with fantasy, I will concede that it's a valid concern. For many people, their so-called "faith" is just that, and the prevalence of this brand of belief is annoying to those of us who would like to be able to speak about faith without being suspected of being nutjobs or flakes. But what is the difference between fantasy and faith? And how do you know you're involved in one and not the other?

There's a simple litmus test we can use to get clarity. Here it is. Fantasy is an idea we cling to in order to escape reality. Faith is an idea we cling to in order to have that courage to face it. Simple as that.

Incidentally, this is the same difference that there is between "getting out of yourself" and "getting over yourself." People use all types of distractions to "get out of themselves" -- drugs, relationships, sports, religiosity, gossip. These pastimes give us a way to check out of our real lives. Some forms of distraction can even be, on balance, fairly positive and productive, like taking classes or volunteering. At the end of the day, however, when the distracting activities cease, we still have to go back to our own consciousness. In contrast, "getting over yourself" is a truly spiritual skill that entails taking yourself less seriously so that you can fully engage in reality without the need for the buffer of self-stimulation. When you get over yourself, you can experience whatever life has to offer at any given moment, even when it hurts.

The bottom line is this. Being spiritual means having a big enough reality to absorb whatever temporary pain life may bring.

 
 
 

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